Posted on Tuesday 14 January 2014 by Ulster Business

Belfast Streets 201009 043

Northern Ireland's retail sector had a miserable December, with shopper numbers almost 9 per cent lower than the same month a year earlier, according to new figures.

In a report that will cause real concern on the high street, the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium said footfall was down 8.7 per cent on the previous December, worse than the 6.3 per cent decline registered in November.

The slump also made Northern Ireland the worst performing region in the UK, which saw an average fall of 2.4 per cent on December 2013. Wales (-3.8 per cent) and the South West of England (-3.4 per cent) were the only other regions to report footfall below the average.

High streets reported the greatest fall, declining 3.7 per cent while footfall in out-of-town locations and shopping centres was down 1.2 per cent.

December is traditionally one of the busiest months for retailers but the increase in popularity of online shopping, as well as pressure on consumer finances during the recession, has been eroding sales for several years.

Aodhán Connolly, Director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium said: "It's deeply concerning to see that Northern Ireland suffered by far the steepest drop in footfall in December, especially after some tentative signs that growth was starting to go the other direction in November. Although disposable incomes are feeling the squeeze across the UK, budgets in Northern Ireland are under the greatest pressure, and there are weighty tasks in the year ahead to build and maintain confidence among customers and retailers.

"There are some other factors at play – we saw in last week's sales figures that multichannel was the story of the season, so increased online browsing and buying and use of services like click and collect has undoubtedly filtered through to these figures. We also saw a last minute shopping surge as expected, as many people took the weekdays leading up to Christmas off and used them to finalise their festive spending.

"However what is very clear, with Northern Ireland suffering the worst drop in footfall across the UK and our vacancy rates still being double the national average at one in five shops lying empty, there has never been a more important time for government to work with retailers to encourage consumer confidence and bolster a sector which accounts for one in ten jobs in Northern Ireland. In the coming weeks we will be calling on the Northern Ireland Executive to step up to the challenge of ensuring not just the survival but the growth of the retail sector."

Diane Wehrle, Retail Insights Director at Springboard, which produced the survey, added: ''Northern Ireland had a more challenging time in December than in the UK as a whole, with a significant drop in footfall.

"No doubt this was partly a consequence of the adverse weather, however, it was exacerbated by the combination of the emphasis by retailers to drive online sales, and the discounting introduced by retailers early on in the month. This meant that shoppers delayed visits to retail destinations until as late as possible which adversely affected footfall early in on the month. And then, over the last weekend before Christmas, continuing severe weather suppressed what retailers hoped would be the last burst of peak trading activity so that footfall did not have an opportunity to recover before the holiday period.''

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